We met under a shower of bird-notes.
Fifty years passed, love’s moment
In a world in servitude to time.
She was young; I kissed with my eyes closed
And opened them on her wrinkles.
Tucked away in some part of our soul there will be a precious memory of a season of love. It may have been in our childhood, our teenage years or last August, but one moment will always be special. Even if our love will pass away, as RS Thomas puts it, with ‘one sigh no heavier than a feather’ the memory will stay fresh, etched into our hearts forever. At such times the language of love comes naturally to us.
Without this language, received or given, the silence cries out. After Mass at Newcastle Cathedral last month a young man waited for a word with me. In his hand he held a copy of a book I had signed for him a few years earlier at the request of a friend. ‘With lots of love’ I had written. ‘I just want to thank you,’ he said earnestly. ‘No one ever wrote or said those words to me. It was making me ill.’ And I hadn’t even known him. How difficult we find it to talk lovingly.
Our best words of love have all the power of God to reveal the unique and divine truth in each one. When a lover says to the beloved ‘You are beautiful’, the grateful reply ‘You have made me so’, is often made. To be sure, there is a sense in which this is true. But it is not the whole truth. What happens, I think, is that we draw out and reveal the beauty already there within another. We create the circumstances for the shy and frightened loveliness in the other to emerge. We then become catalysts of transcendence. When we are awake to our own beauty, we open the eyes of the sleeping beauty in another. This is the most sacred, sacramental moment. Our truest, total presence to all that is around us is the language of love.
A kind of dance goes on in the language of love. Whether with words or gestures we are weaving what Michael O’Siadhail calls ‘a fragile city’. Love is a flow, a poise, a giving and a receiving. ‘To keep the right balance between closeness and distance,’ wrote Henri Nouwen, ‘requires hard work, especially since the needs of each person may be quite different at a given time. One might want to be held while the other looks for independence. A perfect balance seldom occurs, but the honest and open search for that balance can give birth to a beautiful dance worthy to behold.’
All our teaching and preaching will be sterile until they spring from a full heart. Three times Jesus so tenderly drew out the fullness of Peter’s thrice-denied love before entrusting to him the immense work of nourishing God’s people. Only when Peter had his love for his great friend restored, did Jesus feel that he was ready to teach. Mark Van Doren wrote a poem about the teacher he remembered most.
It must unfold as grace, inevitably, necessarily,
as tomcats stretch: in such a way he lolled upon his desk
and fell in love again before our very eyes
again, again – how many times again! –
with Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton’s Satan,
as if his shameless, glad, compelling love
were all he really wanted us to learn . . .
It is only when the language of knowledge and the language of love come together that lives are transformed. Loving, in fact, comes before knowing, not after it. You cannot really know something if you do not first love it. ‘Only the heart knows in the full sense of the word,’ Karl Rahner writes. ‘Really interior knowledge, knowledge that grasps something completely and is more than a list of facts, is knowledge of the heart, the human centre, which knows by experience and by suffering – the human centre where spirit and body, light and love dwell undivided in one chasm. In the final analysis, knowledge is but the radiance of love.’
Sadly, the language of doctrine and liturgy is not always the language of love. Too often it is used for other purposes. A personal relationship with Jesus is often lost in the pursuit of ordered participation by the worshiping assembly. Without the experience of a personal love of Jesus, scripture scholar Raymond Brown warns us, Church membership can miss the central meaning of the Incarnation – an intimate gazing at the face of our Saviour.
We may be experts in exegesis, theology and homiletics, yet lack the loving power and inner authority that moves people, because our own souls are not personally and passionately engaged. Our words and rubrics as welcomer, reader, minister of communion, celebrant, though perfectly rehearsed, will not be the language of love. People’s hearts are not touched. The second half of John’s gospel is a beautiful love letter, an intimate poem of an extraordinary love. For John, this intimacy is the point of everything else. It is all that matters. Without the fragile, tender laying of his head on the breast of Jesus, for John, God’s whole plot is lost.
There is a reluctance in us to believe this. We prefer a safer, dutiful kind of relationship. Many are uncomfortable when God is addressed with the words and images of close friends, of lovers, and of mothers and their children. Ronald Rolheiser refers to the loss, in our churches, of the loving sounds and coaxing words, along with the gentle cadence that we first heard from our mothers when they lured us into self-awareness. What is needed in theology, spirituality and catechesis, he holds, are ‘caressing, gentle, beckoning voices that teach us how to hear and speak the language of love’, leading us out of the darkness of our fear, awakening us to a recognition of the face of God our mother.
Jesus, in truth, actually was, and is, in his utter humanity, the mother-tongue of God. The Gospels speak of Christ as ‘the Word’ – the Word of Love. Like this Word, then, all words – especially those of hierarchy, of liturgy, of teaching and preaching – are small incarnations of Being that is Love. In ‘Words for It’ Julia Cameron captures the yearnings of both mother and lover for bringing words to life:
I wish I could take language and fold it like cool, moist rags.
I would lay words on your forehead. I would wrap words on your wrist.
‘There, there’, my words would say – or something even better.
I would ask them to murmur, ‘Hush’ and ‘Shh, Shh, its all right.’
I would ask them to hold you all night.
I wish I could take language and daub and soothe and cool
Where fever blisters and burns, where fever turns yourself against you.
I wish I could take language and heal the words that were the wounds
You have no name for.